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Photo: Dr. Lloyd Williams in Shaw Google lab

Dr. Lloyd Williams Partners with Google

Lloyd Williams didn’t always plan on becoming an academic. While working on his Ph.D. in computer science at North Carolina State University, he balked at the idea. His girlfriend at the time was on tenure track at another Triangle area university and he thought he wanted nothing to do with it.

“I saw what her life was like, and I kind of decided that I didn’t want to do academia at all after watching that,” he says with a laugh.

By the time Williams graduated in 2010, he was married to a different partner and had a change of heart. There was something about Shaw University that drew him in. As a veteran of the Peace Corps, serving was deeply ingrained in Williams’ soul. After some encouragement from his wife, he decided to apply for an open faculty position.

“I saw Shaw had a faculty position and my wife said, ‘you should go check it out.’ I did and the students were amazing. I really liked it. I had worked some after the Peace Corps, had a business and was making pretty decent money, and I was just not nearly as happy as when I was in the Peace Corps. I decided I wanted to do something that made more of a difference than just making web pages, and I definitely make a big difference at Shaw. I like that a lot.”

Anyone who talks to Williams about his work for more than half a minute will quickly realize that he is deeply driven by his relationships with his students and his desire to see them live fulfilling and successful lives. For him, teaching computer science is about more than just transferring knowledge to young minds, it’s about making a difference – not just on individual students – but on society as a whole.

He sees the lack of diversity in the tech industry as a huge, but solvable problem and is determined to help fix it. So why is there a lack of minority students in tech? Williams can point to several.

“I think that’s an incredibly complicated question and there’s not one answer to it. A lot of the problem is just perception.”

Williams says that the general population - and many of his students – stereotype computer scientists as “white guys with glasses.”

“I used to say I resemble that remark,” says Williams with a laugh. Indeed, Williams is straight out of central casting for role of computer geek.

But Williams does his best to challenge that stereotype among his students and encourage them to believe they can accomplish their goals.

“Even my own students – a lot of them have this perception that that’s not who they are. They’re wrong.”

Williams recalls one particular student who confided to him in his office one day. The student was worried that he had wasted $65 on an application fee to a graduate program at Johns Hopkins, believing that he was unqualified and had no chance of being accepted.

“So of course he ends up getting in, and I remember I told him at the time, ‘don’t say that. Don’t ever hold yourself back. There are a lot of other people who are going to do that to you in life. Don’t let yourself be one of them.’”

Williams wants to send a clear message to his students – and anyone who will listen – that computer scientists come in all colors and genders. That’s where Google comes in. Williams spent the better part of the summer in California as part of Google’s Faculty in Residence program, a fellowship that allows faculty to spend a summer working at Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

The knowledge and skills professors learn in Silicon Valley will help them enrich their students’ education experiences, but also allow them to build relationships at Google, something crucially important when it comes to connecting students with jobs and internships.

“In my software engineering class, I can talk about how they do it at Google. And that’s pretty amazing to be able to have that real, legitimate industry experience to share with my students… I was also able to make a ton of connections, so I really hope I can get some of my students out there. That’s my dream.”

There was a time when working at Google would’ve seemed like a pipe dream for Shaw students, but Williams believes the University will get there soon. The progress the department has made since he’s been there has been immense, he says. And Williams has plenty of reasons to believe the future is bright for the computer science department and the University overall.

“We’re going to draw top students from across the country, we’re going to produce excellent computer scientists, and companies are going to be clamoring to try and get to our students,” says Williams with an optimistic grin. “That’s my vision. When I first got here people thought I was completely crazy, and now they just think I’m a little bit crazy.”

The Shaw computer science department is not short on success stories. Graduates from the program have gone on to work at Intel, Cisco, IBM, NASA, GlaxoSmithKline, and other prestigious organizations – jobs that graduates from any school would be proud to even compete for. For Williams, getting his students to Silicon Valley is part of taking that next step.

“I definitely want to get my students there.” Williams says of Silicon Valley. “Google is a very special place. Getting to work at this incredibly innovative company at the height of their power was amazing… That's something that I would really like for my students. I’m really excited that we’re starting to produce some students who could be competitive for that.”

Williams believes he can start that process by taking the lessons he learned at Google and transferring them to the culture at Shaw.

“Silicon Valley is just a very surreal place,” he says. “But it’s also a very special place, very inventive, very open to ideas. I’m really trying to bring a lot of that back to my students. Google has this thing called ‘Googliness’. It’s a whole mindset about openness, encouraging ideas, being entrepreneurial, and never criticizing someone for having an idea – and it was wonderful. It was a really nurturing, open, inventive environment that was really fun to be in.”

Williams is back on campus in Raleigh now, and is doing his best to instill the Google mindset in his students, along with the latest skills and knowledge they’ll need to compete for jobs. He’s also focused on his research. A recent $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation means that Shaw will also be on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence and robotics research. However, Williams says increasing diversity in STEM will still be a big part of his focus.

“How do we get people interested in STEM? How do we keep them interested in STEM? How do we diversify the technical fields, because it’s a huge problem right now. There are a lot of bright people who could be doing these jobs who are not.”

Thanks to Lloyd Williams and Shaw University, many young people are pursuing careers in STEM who may not otherwise have had an opportunity. Perhaps some of them will do that at Google one day.


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